Gear: Shoes

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My initial intention was to write one post covering gear and gear considerations for aspiring hikers to ponder. However, as any other thru-hiker will confirm, we love to talk about shoes. My thoughts on shoes alone have ballooned to cumbersome proportions, but I think there is some good info sprinkled throughout so I will leave it as it is. I promise to be more concise in future gear discussions.

Readers beware: If you don’t like reading about shoes, stop here. Enjoy this instead.

When embarking on a hike of this magnitude, the shoes you put on your feet are arguably the most important gear consideration you face. Nothing else can boast such a direct influence on the comfort and ease of what you have chosen to spend your time doing, which is to walk, all day, everyday. For my hike, I used exclusively the Brooks Cascadia model. I started out with the latest and greatest, the 10’s, but they were total crap.

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Patch job in Idyllwild

The upper deteriorated much too quickly so after 150 miles, I was walking with giant holes across the toe crease allowing all sorts of trail detritus to wander in a slosh about.  Duct tape and floss patches only delayed the inevitable.  Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident and word spread fast along the trail that these shoes were about as good as sandals. My next 5 pairs were the previous model, 9’s, and they performed much better. I coaxed 600 miles each out of two pairs, but tried for the most part to switch them out every 450 or so miles. In total, I was on my 6th pair of shoes when I strolled into Canada.

 

I was lucky in my search for shoes. Pre-hike, I trawled the internet, reading blogs and things, and general consensus agreed that Cascadia’s were the shoe for thru-hiking. I drank the Kool-Aid, and it worked out. Others were not so lucky, bouncing from brand to brand, enduring many painful miles, before finding what worked. Others never found what worked, succumbing to any of the many foot ailments that will end a hike. Feet are personal! What worked for me or some other schlub on the internet probably won’t work for you. Don’t be afraid to find your own solution.

Diatribe:  One thing that quickly got on my nerves was hearing fellow hikers complain about how their shoes were wearing out too fast. Most thru-hikers eschew traditional hiking boots, with all their great durability, waterproofing, and ankle support, in the name of going lighter. Because of this, countless pairs of trail-running shoes are abused in ways they were never designed to handle, carrying heavy loads being the obvious example. Of course we all want lightweight shoes that are comfortable and last for 1,000+ miles, but they don’t exist (yet).* I tried to tell people that if their trail-runners were designed to last 1,000 miles then they never would have bought them in the first place because they would have been boots. If the engineers at shoe companies made these abominations anyway, trail runners (as in people who actually run on trails), the target consumer, wouldn’t buy the things either for they would be overbuilt and heavy. My advice, either wear trail-runners and accept that the soles will grind smooth, the padding will pack-out, and they will smell awful, or choose boots with the understanding that they will be heavy, everyone will tell you to switch to trail-runners, and they will smell awful. You will need to replace your shoes, trail-runners more often than boots, so don’t get angry about it. Get excited! Because new shoes feel great, look great, and smell great.

So to recap:

  • Don’t buy Cascadia 10’s even if they’re on sale.
  • Hope that Brooks addressed the durability issue with the 11’s.**
  • Don’t buy Brooks Cascadia’s just because the internet tells you to.
  • Ignore “ballistic rock shield”, “dual layer EVA”, “zero drop”, blah blah blah. Unless you actually understand what any of that stuff means, just try to find comfortable shoes.
  • Consider sizing up for foot-swell. I don’t know how real this actually is, but I added a half-size to my street shoe and never had a problem.
  • Resist buying a bunch of the same shoe before you know it will work for you. Walk a couple hundred miles first, then, after you fall in love, scoop ‘em up at sale price.
  • You will probably spend more $$$ on shoes than any other hike expense besides food. Isn’t that crazy!?!

So get outside and figure out what will keep your feet happy. Whether it’s Brooks, Altra, Merrell, Saucony, Salomon, or HOKA, it is worth the effort to find the right shoe for you. And if you manage to get over how stupid they look and actually try out a pair of what I mockingly call ‘marshmallow shoes’, kudos to you for being an adult. I’m not. For the record, I hear they are amazing.

 

* That said, Merrell actually manages to get pretty close to shoe/boot success with the Moab’s. I talked with many a hiker who switched to these for a little extra support and durability. Besides changing out the insoles now and then, they were pushing well past 1,000 miles. Still a bit booty for most, though.

** After last year’s debacle, Brooks has wisely added a statement in the product description essentially denouncing thru-hiking as an invalid use for the shoe, perhaps to sidestep any responsibilities wrapped up in the warranty. Will this stop thru-hikers from using it? Absolutely not. Should it stop you? Proceed with caution.

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